Everyone in New York is from Polizzi Generosa

Some time ago, I blogged about my friend, Vincent Schiavelli, actor and cookbook author, who loved food, loved wine, loved cigarettes and cigars way too much, and for too long. He passed away from lung cancer in 2005.

All three of his lovely cookbooks were about his Sicilian family. The first one, Bruculinu, America (1998), whose title mellifluously Americanized the name of his native Brooklyn, painted a vivid picture of a childhood spent in an insular Sicilian ghetto of Bushwick, Brooklyn.  At the time of his youth, Brooklyn was a world of immigrants struggling to adapt to a strange life in a new country, and Sicilian was still their language.  His second book, Papa Andrea’s Sicilian Table (2001), recounted his grandfather’s life as a monzù, or professional chef, and presented many of Papa’s personalized traditional recipes.  His last cookbook, Many Beautiful Things (2002), told of his ancestral home in the mountaintop village of Polizzi Generosa, near Palermo; he visited Polizzi regularly, and eventually moved there permanently in his later years.  He died and was buried there, on his family’s land. Polizzi Generosa dates back 2600 years, over which time it was won and lost by many.  Maybe accepting all those invaders was how Polizzi became generous.

While I was chef at Chez Panisse Restaurant, I had the good fortune of being asked to cook for the book signings of his first and third books.  Many Beautiful Things, told in a poetic, wistful tone, is my favorite of the three.  Its cover is beautiful.  From that book I learned to make wild fennel liqueur, or finucchiedda. Wild fennel is ubiquitous in northern California, as it is in Sicily, and a gracious distiller friend provided me with the spirits. 

Amid great confusion and with endless re-calculating of formulae, I produced my first batch of finucchiedda and surprised Vincent with it at the dinner. Miraculously, the liqueur had come out absolutely correct and Vincent was delighted by it, saying it captured the exact flavor and smell of Sicilia.  Vincent and I remained in contact until his death.  Since that first attempt I’ve made finucchiedda every year, and have given it away to friends.

Elizabeth Street in 1912
Last year, while living in Lower Manhattan, I met the butcher Moe Albanese, whose shop was just a few doors from my funky Elizabeth Street railroad flat.  I wrote about him in an earlier posting, too.

Moe’s father, Vicenzo, had emigrated to the U.S. in 1911; his mother, Mariannina, had been born and grew up on Elizabeth Street, then the heart of New York City’s Little Italy.  One block west on Mott Street Vicenzo operated a little restaurant that closed in 1923 under Prohibition laws.  Vicenzo needed to find a new livelihood. He and Mariannina were newly married when they opened their little shop at 239 Elizabeth Street, across the street from where Moe's is now located. Mariannina spoke English but Vicenzo did not, so she helped the customers in the front and he butchered the meats behind the counter.

Moe came up in the shop, and became a butcher instead of a physician. After his father passed away in the 1950’s, Moe ran the shop along side his mother for over 50 years.  Mariannina died in 2002 at age 97, the year Many Beautiful Things was published. 

To enter Moe’s shop is to step into the past, in the best sense.  You immediately notice a very thick butcher block worn to waviness by years of cutting and scraping clean; an antique but still-working scale (original, not recently bought) on the back counter; and two very old enameled meat cases with several large primal cut pieces inside them. Remember, Moe cuts his meats to order.  Moe’s there every day, selling to the few regular customers who come through the doors, many of whom are from the neighborhood and have known Moe for a very long time; some even knew his mother as a young woman.  He’s the last butcher in Little Italy, and he represents its history. These days, Elizabeth Street is mostly exclusive boutiques and trendy, smart restaurants patronized
by models, artists, and tourists from everywhere.  It seems as though there’s always a movie being shot on the block.  But if you can, drop by his shop and chat with him. Though Moe shows no signs of selling up or retiring – I asked him both questions – who knows how much longer he’ll cut steaks and pound veal scallopini?

I’d occasionally lurk in the shop, hoping to politely engage him in conversation about his life as a butcher, or about the neighborhood as it once was.  Lurking wasn’t easy since it there’s no place to hide in the tiny shop, and not infrequently I find no one there but Moe.   Sometimes it was awkward, and I’d buy a steak or an oxtail, say goodbye, and quietly leave. Other times, under the guise of browsing, I was able to observe the conversations between him and his guests. It was hard to distinguish who was family and who were friends. Once, eager to bond with Moe and show him that we shared a profession, I gave him my business card, which reads, “Old Fashioned Butcher.”  When I presented it to him, he muttered, with wry humor, that I’d stolen his name.  I was shamed by his comment and embarrassed that I’d used the name “butcher.”  I felt I’d disrespected him. After that, I stopped in a little less often, and when I did I tried not to make too much eye contact.  I’d meant only to show him respect but it backfired nastily.  Who are we to call ourselves butchers, in comparison to him?   

Moe Albanese
Once, while I was purchasing one of his hand-cut, prime grade steaks, Moe was chatting with a friend seated in the metal chair opposite the counter.  I was, de facto, part of the conversation.  Moe explained that his father came to New York from a tiny mountain top village called Polizzi Generosa, and arrived on Elizabeth Street by way of Ellis Island. This news struck me hard and fast.

Recently, I watched – almost out of obligation – what turned out to be a terrifically engaging film: Martin Scorsese’s, “My Voyage to Italy” (1999).  Describing his childhood, Scorcese mentions that he’d grown up on Elizabeth Street, where his family lived in the 1940’s. I jolted to attention at his mention of this.  He explained how as a child on Friday and Saturday nights he’d sit with his family and a few neighbors, glued to the television set, watching the Italian films that had come to America.  This was their big night out. Like many others with a similar immigrant experience, he and his family were transported back to their homeland by the bittersweet films they studiously watched.

Scorsese’s subdued narrative is a quiet history of Italian filmmaking. He recounts being drawn into that world by the masterpieces of Italian Neo-Realism, and includes clips from 38 of the seminal films of the genre; Vittorio di Sica, Lucchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, and Michelangelo Antonioni are all represented – it was they who seduced him into filmaking.  Roberto Rossellini’s films comprise more than half of those referenced, and Scorsese’s title reflects that of Rossellini’s own Viaggio in Italia (1954). 

"Riso Amaro" by Giuseppe De Santis (1949)
Often, the films are dark pieces presenting a picture of brutal, harsh, and sometimes hopeless realities of the impoverished Italian populace, portraying life in war-ravaged Italy and Sicily, and the indescribable losses that people suffered at the hands of the ruthless Germans.

You may have guessed by now that Scorsese’s family were also from Polizzi Generosa, who, like any others left their beloved homeland for a new life in America.  But what was this place that so many left behind? How small is the world that these three men were delivered into the world by families from that same distant place?  I later understood that they all left Polizzi for a life none of them could imagine but one they knew held the promise of a better life for them and their families.  That I found all of them in a tiny circle within New York City by incredible accident was astonishing to me.